The Basics of Garden Design – Part 2
Welcome back to my guide to some of the basic ideas behind garden design. If you have followed through on last month’s first part you will have done some thinking about your requirements for the garden or section of the garden, you may have developed a preference for either a formal or an informal design, you may have a sketch plan of your existing plot or you may have gone all the way and produced an accurate, scale plan of what you already have. This second part will hopefully give you some ideas about how you might go about converting your existing garden into a new, more exciting and interesting design.
A sensible next step is to produce what is known as a “Bubble Diagram”. This is where you take your ‘Must Have’ and the selected parts of your ‘Might Like’ lists and start to decide where you are going to place the different elements which you have decided to include. Their positions will depend on such factors as proximity to the house, access points into the garden and areas of sun and shade at different times of day. These diagrams are very quick to draw on tracing paper placed over your sketch or scale plan and as such you can produce several versions until you have one which suits you best. Just remember to fill the whole space with ‘bubbles’ without leaving gaps between them and take into account how much space each item might need to take up. At this stage don’t worry about the actual shapes of the ‘bubbles’, that will come next. For example, you might end up with something like the ‘Bubble Diagram’ shown below in Figure 1.
Once you are happy with such a diagram you can start to work on the actual shapes of each of your ‘bubbles’. Many people find that at this stage a grid drawn onto a tracing paper plan of the house, boundaries and any large existing features to be retained such as trees and buildings helps to get the proportions of the various features right. The size of the grid squares needs to be suggested by some dominant feature of the house such as the width of a bay window or patio doors or the distance from a corner to a window or door. For many gardens a grid measurement of between 2 and 4 metres would probably be about right. It is always best to use square grids as from squares it is easy to produce rectangles as well as circles or arcs of circles. Some of the grid lines themselves also need to extend from dominant features of the house such as window edges or corners so that the house and garden are tied together on the plan. The obvious grid to use is one that is square with the house as in Figure 2 but an interesting alternative is to turn the grid though 45 degrees to give a diagonal pattern which is particularly good for making a long, narrow garden appear wider than it actually is, see Figure 3. By basing your design on a grid each area will be related to other areas in size, shape and proportion which gives cohesion and harmony to the design ie. it helps to avoid the ‘bitty’ approach to garden design which rarely works well.
Now you are ready to start creating some shapes and patterns based on squares or part squares, rectangles and circles or arcs of circles which you find visually appealing and which eventually will fit in with your ‘Bubble Diagram’. The grid lines help you to position your shapes and your thoughts about formal or informal design will inform your choices of these shapes and patterns. For example, a more formal approach might look like the design shown in Figure 4 whereas an informal design for the same plot might look like that shown in Figure 5. Most gardens in fact fall somewhere between the two styles and it is even possible to have both styles within one garden as long as they are in two separate areas (see Figure 7 for an example of this). Experimenting with shapes like this should help you to create a new, fresh design rather than simply tinkering with what is already there. When you are happy with your basic shapes and patterns you can turn back to your ‘Bubble Diagram’ and see how you can use and possibly adapt your patterns to accommodate all the different elements required something which I had begun to do in Figures 4 and 5.
Your plan is now ready to develop further by first of all thinking about the garden in three dimensions rather than just two. Height variations in the garden are very important in generating interest and mature trees and large shrubs to be retained are obviously the starting points. On sloping sites changes of level can be employed with steps, sloping paths and terracing or height can be created by the use of raised beds, pergolas and arches. The planting itself of course can produce variations in height and this is the time to start labelling on the plan areas of high, medium and low planting. This will often be reflected in what is beyond the garden with some pleasant views (the ‘borrowed’ landscape) preserved with low or medium planting and other, less pleasant views or objects, hidden or disguised by higher planting.
Finally at this stage the overall design needs to be refined by carefully looking at each element to make sure that the dimensions allowed for it will work practically. Questions such as “Have I left enough space on the patio for the comfortable arrangement of chairs?”, “Are the paths wide enough?”, “Have I allowed sufficient room on the drive for a car to turn safely?”. Some dimensions may have to be adjusted slightly because of the answers to such questions and you may have to move away a little from the grid plan in order to solve such practical issues but don’t worry, the grid by this time has served its purpose and is not written in stone.
You have now reached perhaps for many the most interesting and you could say artistic stage. It is time to start working on the details of the design. That is to start considering the details of both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ landscape. The hard landscape is concerned with the inanimate materials to be used, the paving, bricks, gravels, timber, statuary for example. The soft landscape is about the living part of the garden, the planting, which for many can be the most difficult part. The temptation is to create interest by having lots of different materials and lots of different plants but in this case ‘less’ is definitely ‘more’. We have all seen gardens which have a bit of everything, but do they work as a whole, are they calming and relaxing, are they pleasant to be in, can you see a theme? To help you through this there are five basic principles to bear in mind- Harmony, Proportion, Balance, Simplicity and Interest. At first glance these can seem a bit overwhelming but as with most things there are some simple ideas which can help to achieve these aims.
I mentioned Harmony at the beginning of part 1 as “the fitting together of all the parts so as to form a connected whole”. There should be harmony between the house and garden as well as within the garden itself. There should be some impression of the purpose and aim behind the design and no jarring of the senses with haphazard layouts or clashing styles. It is possible to incorporate different styles as many famous gardens do successfully but the transition from one to another must seem natural. One common approach to this is to divide the garden into ‘rooms’ so that when in one room the others are not apparent. This works best of course in large gardens such as Hidcote in Gloucestershire and Sissinghurst in Kent. Some simple ways of helping to achieve harmony include:-
*Consider the style, colours and proportions of the house and repeat some of the features in the design
*Use hard landscaping materials to match some of those in the house
*Use the same hedging around and within the garden
*Use hedges, pergolas and arches to lead from one part to another
*Use focal points to draw the eye and to lead into new areas
*Repeat geometric designs
*Repeat planting types and colours
*Plant in groups of odd numbers rather than just ‘dotting’ plants around
Proportion and scale are aspects of harmony concerned with size and shape. We have all seen small gardens seemingly swamped by large trees and shrubs or a large lawn surrounded by narrow flower beds where the proportions are all wrong. The starting point for getting the proportion right is the house itself and is the reason for using the grid method for the overall design layout. Points to bear in mind are:-
*Take into account the ultimate sizes of trees and shrubs
*Main paths should generally be wide enough for two people to walk on side by side or to push a wheelbarrow along
*Paths which narrow in width away from the house can make the garden look longer than it is
*For seating areas take into account the number of people to be accommodated as well as the size of the house and garden
*In beds and borders a useful guideline is to have some plants at the back or middle the height of which are roughly one and a half times the width of the bed or border
*Some plants should be above eye level in order to break up the skyline
This is related to proportion but is more concerned with the positions of features within the overall design. For example an individual bed can look unbalanced if a tree or large shrub is positioned at one end or the whole garden can appear unbalanced if too many features are clustered together in just one section. Balance is not the same as symmetry as balance can be achieved by using different shapes, densities or even different colours.
A problem faced by all garden designers especially if the garden is small is not what to include but what to leave out! Too many features or too many different plants, particularly if they are just dotted around, can make the garden fussy and unrestful. The old saying KISS is a wise one indeed- Keep it simple, stupid!
It is possible for a design to meet all the above requirements but still be without interest or inspiration and therefore this is perhaps the greatest challenge to the designer. Painting a picture in three dimensions with plants which change colour, spread, form and texture during the year is quite a formidable task! However, there are certain tools available to the designer which make it possible to create and maintain interest and these fall into five areas.
Shape and Form
Ground shapes can be regular as in Formal gardens which are static and restful or irregular as in Informal gardens where sweeping curves give a sense of movement.
Plant shapes can create interest as they come in so many different forms- large or small, prostrate, round, upright, conical, spreading, fastigiate (narrow) amongst many others.
Focal points add interest by attracting attention and become the centre of the picture for the viewer with the surroundings forming the backdrop. The focal point itself can be a specimen plant such as a tree or shrub or a non-living feature such as a seat, statue, stone planter, bird bath or sundial. Additional interest can be created by a second focal point which is only seen when the first one is reached. This sense of a journey through the garden is vital in creating and maintaining interest.
This can be reflected in both hard and soft landscaping.
Hard landscaping texture can come, for example, from using large paving or small pebbles, modern concrete or traditional bricks, reflective or moving water, solid fences or see through screening.
Soft landscaping texture is dictated by the plant foliage and can be dense, airy, large or small leaved, shiny or dull.
Again colour can come from both hard and soft landscaping with the former more likely to provide the background, more subdued colours and the latter the more vibrant colours, especially in the form of flowers even if these are not as long lasting as we would always like. Foliage provides more subtle, calming colours which do last for longer and evergreens have an important part to play in providing colour all year round. Designers for this reason try to work on a ratio, for shrubs at least, of two thirds deciduous to one third evergreen in order to maintain interest over the winter months.
For many gardeners plant colour in the form of flowers and foliage is a very important part of the garden and interest in the garden can certainly be increased by thoughtful use of colour and by reference to the Colour Wheel, Figure 6.
The principle is that adjacent colours harmonise and can be used effectively together to produce a restful, calming sense while opposite colours contrast with each other to give a more striking, eye-catching effect, to best effect I think when used sparingly.
Other useful tips on using colour to create interest include:-
*Red, orange and yellow are the ‘warm or hot’ colours, whereas green, blue and purple are considered to be the ‘cool’ colours so they can be used to create different ‘feels’ to a garden. Warm colours also appear closer to the viewer than cool colours therefore, especially in smaller gardens, cool colours placed away from the house will make the garden seem longer.
*Softer colours give a more restful feel than bright colours
*Patches of bright colours create interest among a backdrop of softer colours
*Light colours can be used to brighten up shady areas
*White and silver can be used to link stronger colours together by literally giving the eye a rest
For gardeners choosing the right plant combinations is a bit like searching for the Holy Grail- not easy! Designers often think of plants in twos or threes and try to make the group more interesting than the plants individually. As I have written before this for many gardeners occurs more often by chance than by planning but when you get it right it certainly creates interest as well as a lot of pleasure! In the photographs below I have tried to show some combinations that I think do work quite well and to suggest why they work. In essence this is mainly about flower colour but foliage and form of the plants also come into play.
This combination is Prunus serrula, the Tibetan Cherry, with its cinnamon bark next to Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ with its flat heads of small pink flowers now turning into purple berries and dark purple finely divided leaves and Penstemon ‘Raven’ with its pink-purple flower heads. An example of a harmonious colour combination from flowers, foliage and bark together with interesting foliage.
Another harmonious use of flower and foliage colour with Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ in the background with its older dark purple and younger green leaves, a semi-double flowered dark pink Anemone ‘Serenade’ in the back top left, a lovely pink Antirrhynum, the ever reliable Scabious ‘Blue Butterfly’ in bottom left, an airy, white flowered Thalictrum in the top centre and the lovely pink and white Hydrangea paniculata in the bottom right.
This is a largely harmonious combination but also has a few contrasts to add interest. The yellows, reds and oranges come from the Acer, Rosa ‘Malvern Hills’, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ in the background, and in the pots Pelargonium, Nemesia and Bidens. The contrasting blues and purples come from Lavender, Osteospernum and Felicia.
Finally this is an example of a contrasting combination with the purple leaves of Prunus ‘Royal Burgundy’, the pink and white Corncockle and a dark pink Hydrangea in the background contrasted by the orange Calandula.
Gardens are always more interesting, and I suppose intriguing, if parts are hidden from immediate view so that surprises may be waiting around the corner. Walls, hedges, large shrubs and whole beds can be used to hide other parts of the garden. In essence this is the idea of creating a journey around the garden again which sparks the imagination of the visitor/viewer.
Surprises may come from sharp contrasts in colour such as a predominantly blue bed with an orange plant in the centre or from an amusing or unusual sculpture in an unexpected place such as ‘Mr Grump’ in our garden who is a very ugly, gargoyle-like creature hiding behind a bush. (He was kindly given to me by my lovely sister as a birthday present some years ago and I’m still sure that there was no message intended!!!)
The handsome Mr Grump!
At this stage you may well be saying to yourselves that he hasn’t said much yet about the all important ‘planting plan’ part of the design or even mentioned many plants by name. The main reasons for this are that there are so many plants to choose from and that everyone has their own personal preferences when it comes to plants so that recommending particular plants for garden sites which I have never seen is almost impossible as each site is so different in terms of size, aspect, soil and slope. However, your site knowledge and final design plan along with your plant preferences will help you come up with plants which suit your needs as well as helping you to select the right plants for the right place. Don’t force plants to live in environments which don’t suit them, they won’t thank you for it! Where they come from, their labels, advice from the garden centre and sometimes just the look of the plant will be a guide to the conditions they require for optimum growth. In addition to this the basic principles of design which I have discussed will provide lots of pointers towards the types and sizes of plants which might be used to good effect and to the variations in colour, texture, shape and form which will provide interest throughout the year.
At this point you might well be thinking that all this is too much and that you can’t possibly do all this yourself and if that really is the case then you can of course always use the services of a professional garden designer who will do all this or just part of it for you – at a cost! However, why not give it a go yourself and have endless fun for free and a garden to be proud of at the end? Has there ever been a better time to have a go at a grand project?
To conclude I have added below one of my designs (Figure 7) from a few years ago for the front and side/rear garden of a Victorian style house in a Worcestershire village with which to illustrate some of the ideas and techniques covered in this blog.
The small front garden facing east is in a formal style to pick up some of the house features such as the paving to match the existing tiles in the porch, the straight paths and squares to mirror the geometric lines of the building, the black ‘rope’ or brick edges to match the lines of darker bricks in the house walls and the triangular arch top to mirror the two gables on the house front. The front garden is planted with low growing shrubs and herbaceous perennials including some evergreens and several scented plants near to the paths. The trellis and arch are planted mainly with scented, climbing roses. The larger side/rear garden on the south side of the house is separated from the front by the arch and planted up trellis and in contrast is in informal style in keeping with the three existing and retained trees, the large-leaved Laurel hedge and the much plainer south wall of the house. The shady tree border is planted with colourful shrubs and shade tolerant ground cover while the trellis and arch on the west side are planted with a mixture of Roses, Clematis and Jasmine amongst others to provide colour, variety and privacy from the lane to the south. From the front garden the focal point of a yellow-leaved Robinia tree is seen through the arch which leads the viewer into the rear garden where apart from the different feel to this part of the garden there is a second focal point of an old, planted up well top to lead the viewer to the far side of this second garden.
Hopefully the above has inspired you rather than put you off the whole idea and now it is over to you! Please get in touch if you have any questions or problems that you are finding hard to deal with and I will do my best to help out.
The next blog will be The Garden in September which will come out around the beginning of the month. Until then happy gardening and designing and keep safe!